Sunday, November 13, 2016

Westworld's clash of narratives evokes America's world

Westworld, the fascinating HBO series based loosely on the Michael Crichton novel, is turning out to be an allegory of the current American condition.  

[The following Westworld synopsis contains no spoilers beyond the basic plot revealed in the early episodes] Westworld takes place in the near future, when Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotic science reach the point where robots can pass the Turing test (named for AI pioneer Alan Turing) which measures a robot's ability to convince a human that it, the robot, is human.  "Westworld" is the name of a Wild West themed adult amusement park in which the "hosts" are robots who can pass the Turing test, both intellectually and physically, so that the paying, human guests can converse with the hosts, have realistic sex with them, fall in love with them or satisfy sadistic impulses by abusing them.

Many human specialists and technicians run Westworld. The job of some is to write and coordinate "narratives," storylines introduced by hosts to the human guests, such as quests for capturing or killing notorious outlaws and collecting a bounty, or mixing it up with prostitutes and/or desperadoes in the brothel saloon. Among the narrative specialists, however, are unknown actors who introduce unauthorized narratives without running these narratives by their colleagues, so that both the guests and hosts start to find themselves in confusing cross-narrative collisions.  Spoilers would be involved in speculating on identities, or the nature and purpose of the unauthorized narratives, but the parallel of this theme with the clash of narratives in today's American society, after last week's presidential election, is striking.

We can start with Hillary Clinton's official narrative, in which she is a humanitarian, a fighter for women's rights, a seeker of peace, a champion of the low wage earner. This narrative clashed with alternative narratives in which Clinton's efforts on behalf of women center mainly on her own quest to be the first female president; she is a warmonger who voted for the 2003 invasion of Iraq; she panders to Wall Street, making hundreds of millions in speaking fees for telling bankers she opposes regulation.  Wikileaks and FBI Director James Comey correspond to the alternative narrative writers in Westworld.

Trump's narrative dissonance is appearing only now, in his victory.  His narrative during the campaign depicted him as a renegade, a political outsider, a non-compromiser who, as president, would shake up Washington on behalf of the unheard masses.  There were attempts by the Clinton side to negate this narrative with information about Trump's mistreatment of women, the disabled, Trump employees and others, but they failed to stop the momentum of Trump's compelling narrative.

That narrative's cognitive dissonance first appeared last week when President-elect Trump sat down with outgoing President Obama in humble fashion, both men saying nice things about each other and pledging to work together.  In Trump's campaign narrative, adhered to by millions, Obama was an unregenerate villain: a traitor, a liar, a criminal.  In one pro-forma moment that narrative disappeared, negated by Trump as he accepted the realities of an office holder.  His narrative revisions have already spread to policy.  He now praises and accepts key provisions of Obamacare in statements that would have cost him the election one week ago.  Regarding the thousands of people in the streets protesting his win, whom he would have labeled paid thugs in the campaign, he now says he "loves" their "passion for our great country."  We don't know yet about his immigration policies, but it's a safe bet he won't build a wall paid for by Mexico, or send "dreamers" south in the wholesale fashion he promised.  Likewise for banning all Muslim immigrants.  As far as his transition team and hosts of advisors, the spots are filling up fast with Washington insiders.

The American population is thus faced with a post-election environment in which nothing in either campaign is as it seemed, as it was advertised.  The status quo appears to have survived pretty much intact, after an election that appeared revolutionary but was ultimately no more revolutionary than a staged event in Westworld.

One test of Trump's real narrative will come when America endures its next terrorist attack.  Trump claimed in the campaign that he had a plan to get rid of ISIS.  If this is true, it may put him in opposition to the inner workings of our Military Industrial Complex (MIC), which needs either ISIS or another credible enemy to distract us from, among other things, the confusion of our narratives.  There is precedent for MIC manipulation of our wars in the U.S./Afghan war against the Taliban.  Ignored stories in the New Yorker Magazine (see next post) reveal that the CIA secretly supported the Taliban, directing it with bribes where and when to attack, and of course the Taliban continues to exist.  If the MIC does not want to destroy ISIS yet- before we're set with a new enemy- will Trump play along, reprising Obama policy by bombing Iraq and Syria and assassinating ISIS leaders, only to encounter ISIS again and again, not unlike our War on Drugs which touts similar warlike victories against drug organizations, while not impeding those organizations in a significant manner?  Or will there be something genuine about Trump, an actual distaste for deceptive manipulation of America's wars?

The latter outcome seems unlikely, to put it mildly.  One thing is clear: whoever can come up with a unified, credible narrative will win America. Whether this narrative addresses the realities of a rapidly evolving humanity, or just shunts all of us into a single highly focused beam of war hysteria, remains to be seen.

[Update, 9/30/22: Today I would modify the metaphor above predicting a "single highly focused beam of war hysteria;" what we have are many highly focused beams of war hysteria, each employing public narratives to imprint local populations with the ordained designations of its neighbors as either allies or enemies, in a system of purposeful re-direction covering virtually the entire globe. Regarding the hypothetical initiators of these narratives, the same suppositions that lead us to enjoy Westworld-type fantaisies about secret manipulation of society's narratives lead us to enjoy theories about secret manipulators of real-world narratives. Maybe we hope these secret manipulators will feel differently in the future- after we've been churned for a while- and will want to put human society back together again.]

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